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sheridan women in leadership

At a time when gender parity appears to remain an elusive concept in the leadership ranks of higher education, six women at Sheridan open up about how they create influence and impact and offer advice and reflections drawn from their individual leadership journeys.

Lessons Learned

Drawing on 25 years of formal leadership in higher education in Ontario, Sheridan’s President and Vice Chancellor Dr. Mary Preece suggests that among her most valuable lessons learned are to “trust the essence of who you are.” She elaborates, “Your values will be tested frequently, so staying true to your own compass is critical. This means that you should not try to behave like the men in your leadership circles. Women’s ways of knowing are different and should be respected and nourished.”

Linda Dalton, who has served as Sheridan’s Registrar for the past 13 years, following 15 years of service as a Director, states that “relationships, partnerships, true collaboration and integrity matter”, and adds that “leadership is truly multi-dimensional and not hierarchical in any way.” Pat Spadafora, Director of the Sheridan Centre of Elder Research for the past 15 years echoes those remarks and explains them this way: “I always try to include everyone as an equal. Each person has something different but valuable to contribute. I never expect anything from my team that I wouldn’t expect of myself.”

“…leadership is truly multi-dimensional and not hierarchical in any way.” – Linda Dalton

The notions of humility and service equally ring true with Dr. Janet Morrison, Provost and Vice President Academic at Sheridan, who for 30 years has aspired to learn from the mentors that she says have contributed to her leadership capacity. “Servant leadership is something that resonates with me deeply and fits very well within the post-secondary context. I’m always conscious of my accountability to students, faculty and staff at Sheridan.”

“Being authentic, at times light-hearted, and engendering trust with colleagues is pivotal to one’s success in leadership”, says Alexa Abiscott, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, who joined Sheridan in 2012. Put another way, “Good leadership requires that people have confidence and trust in you,” says Joan Sweeney Marsh, Sheridan’s Chief Librarian, who brings 20 years of leadership expertise to the job. “You need to cut people some slack when needed and when the time comes, they’ll do the same for you.”

On Barriers and Biases

Sweeney Marsh also observes that, “We still live in a world that associates stereotypical male-identified traits as necessary to good leadership and work in a world that doesn’t provide enough accommodation for gender specific health issues, which can impede women from achieving and holding leadership roles.” Others, like Spadafora acknowledge that sometimes an ‘old boys’ network can exist and suggests that “these barriers may be even more insidious than overt barriers because they are harder to prove.” There are also challenges that women generally face when they’re perceived as “too strong, capable, or demanding of high standards of excellence,” adds Abiscott. On Morrison’s list of gender-based challenges, is a concern about “our collective failure to make demonstrative gains on ensuring women and men are paid equally for similar work.”

Defining the Hallmarks

When reflecting on the personal practices that she consistently aspires to model, Dalton speaks of the need to “deal with conflict and then move on. Share the kudos and publicly take the hit for the team – but privately, treat those hits as lessons learned. Be genuine. Be humble. Remember that a sense of humour sustains everything.” Team thinking is also top of mind with Preece who is a strong believer in the principles of collaborative leadership within learning organizations. “Our collective responsibility is to harness the power and talents of every individual within our ‘family’ to be the best that we can be. Humour can also be a helpful ingredient as it sometimes offers a window into the essence of each individual.” Morrison makes it a point to live her belief that “every person who works on a college or university campus is an educator. Fundamental to that is a capacity to have difficult conversations. You have to tackle issues of contention with honesty and as much transparency as possible to be authentic.”

The Opportunities Inherent in our Era

“It’s an important time to be a person of influence,” says Sweeney Marsh. “Too often today, polarizing opinions can lead to paralysis and inertia. We need strong leadership to keep us moving forward together to face challenges and bring about positive outcomes. This is both exciting and exhausting.”

Spadafora concurs. “We’re seeing women and girls of all ages around the world making a difference, whether that’s Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House, Mary Robinson as the first female President in Ireland, Malala Yousafzai advocating for education for girls, Sheryl Sandberg as COO of Facebook and Canada’s gender balanced federal cabinet. I do believe we’ve entered a new era in which the contributions of women as leaders are being increasingly recognized.”

Dalton suggests that it’s an exciting time to be a person of influence because “I no longer feel the gender biases that existed 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.” She also appreciates the environment in higher education where we work in a multi-cultural environment and have the ability to effect change for underrepresented groups.

Parting Thoughts and Advice

For Abiscott, it boils down to this: “Build relationships, take risks, set stretch goals, and apply for positions that you might not be 100 per cent ready for but are passionate about. Then build more relationships and be grateful for the other strong women around you.” In a similar vein, Spadafora adds “Just do it!  Don’t wait until the perfect moment because there isn’t one. Act ‘as if’ and don’t fear stepping outside of your comfort zone. Your comfort will catch up to you.” Sweeney Marsh recommends being thoughtful in one’s choices. “Don’t take the wrong leadership role just because you have a strong desire to lead. Try to find the right opportunity for you.”

“Women need to find the balancing mechanisms for a sane, joyful life. No one can do it all without a price – personal or professional – attached to the effort.” – Dr. Mary Preece

Morrison, in turn, offers advice on the little and big ways to build one’s capacity. “Find mentors. Network with women you admire and ask them questions about how they honed their skills. Seek feedback about your leadership style and efficacy, build your self-confidence and get to know your strengths and weaknesses so you bring a higher degree of emotional intelligence to your interactions.”

As for Preece’s parting thoughts? “Women need to continue to find the balancing mechanisms for a sane, joyful life. No one can do it all without a price – personal or professional – attached to the effort. Follow your joy to be a happy and productive individual, stay true to your personal values, act with integrity and dispense with the guilt exacted on past generations of women who aspired to have it all.”


Pictured at top of page (from left to right): Dr. Mary Preece, President and Vice Chancellor; Pat Spadafora, Director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research; Joan Sweeney Marsh, Director of Library and Learning Services; Dr. Janet Morrison, Provost and Vice President Academic; Linda Dalton, Registrar; Alexa Abiscott, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary. Photo by Julia Maier.

Written by: Christine Szustaczek, Associate Vice President, Communications, Public Affairs and Marketing.

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